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More W.Va. racing schedule cuts possible

NEWELL, W.Va. — A draft resolution pending before the West Virginia Racing Commission could result in an even shorter racing year than the one envisioned earlier by Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort.

In August, the three-member racing commission denied a request from Mountaineer to reduce its racing calendar from the required 210 days to 196 days – essentially ending December racing at the Newell track.

Now the commission is considering a resolution that, if passed, would ask the West Virginia Legislature to shorten the number of required racing days statewide from 210 days to 185 days.

“The current statutory language … is outdated and does not meet the needs of the Racing Commission and its constituents,” the draft resolution says. “The factors affecting the conducting of live racing in this state directly impact the number of live racing days that can be sustained at each racetrack.”

The resolution describes those factors as increased competition from racetrack casinos in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and legislative action affecting the availability of purse funds to support live racing purses in West Virginia.

The latter is an apparent reference to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s signing of a bill earlier this year that cuts video lottery revenue appropriations to various thoroughbred and greyhound breeders’ and purse funds by 10 percent and redirects them to the State Excess Lottery Revenue Fund.

Because Mountaineer’s purses rely heavily on revenue from video lottery and table gaming at the casino, the new law, which took effect July 1, will cut an estimated $2.5 million annually from the horsemen’s purse fund.

The purse fund took another hit in May when the Legislature decided to restore $1.06 million in funding to children’s programs by authorizing a one-time reduction from the purse fund.

Hoping to offset some of those anticipated losses, Mountaineer went to the racing commission with a request to cuts its annual racing calendar by 14 days in December. Mountaineer’s request was driven by concerns over a shrinking field size, increasing competition from racetrack casinos in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and reductions in the purse fund that horsemen rely on for winnings.

Some members of the Mountaineer Park Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association opposed the request, forcing a hearing before the racing commission in Weirton in July.

At its meeting in August, the commission denied Mountaineer’s request, suggesting instead that Mountaineer:

Immediately reduce the number of races per day from nine to eight as a cost-saving measure;

Consider reducing purses as soon as practicable; and

Revise, with the horsemen’s input, the condition book to maximize resources.

The commission also amended hearing examiner Jeff Blaydes’ opinion by saying that Mountaineer would not be obligated to run races if purse funds run out later in the year.

Afterward, Mountaineer Director of Racing Rose Mary Williams expressed disappointment with the action but said, “We appreciate the insight of the West Virginia Racing Commission by amending it, and we will abide by the conditions they set forth.”

In a recent interview, Williams said Mountaineer is in the process of implementing the racing commission’s order.

“We’re now running eight races per day. We instituted a 10 percent purse cut right after the (August meeting),” she said.

If the state Legislature takes up the issue of racing days next year, the resolution’s recommendation of 185 days would be similar in its effect to the earlier request by Mountaineer, Williams said.

“It would give us the mechanism to keep the purses at a higher level. … If we could maintain our purses at a higher level, the horsemen would have more options to make more money,” she said.

Commission Interim Executive Director John Myers said the goal behind the resolution is to give commissioners the statutory authority and more flexibility to consider requests such as Mountaineer’s in the future.

Earlier this month, the commission granted a request from Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, in the Eastern Panhandle, to not have to make up 20 racing days lost to inclement weather and poor track conditions last winter, according to the website BloodHorse.com.

Myers said the resolution sets 185 days as the “line in the sand” that West Virginia racetracks cannot go below.

“What we’re thinking, going forward, is that we’re probably going to be facing similar requests in 2015 if we don’t have modifications,” he said. “The way the current statute reads, that flexibility is not there for the commission.”

Mountaineer trainer and horseman Mike Vales said that while he does not support the resolution language, he does not think the issue will go anywhere with the state Legislature.

“The horsemen here want to run year-round. We don’t want them to cut those days,” he said.

The racing commission accepted public comments on the draft resolution through Friday and is expected to vote on it at the Oct. 14 regular meeting.

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